Thump! A Sound on the Way Out at William & Mary

August 19, 2016

~By Nick Newberry, Class of 2017

Thump!

Whether it’s a cardinal on the terrace picnic tables or a Red-tailed Hawk coursing through the trees on your way to class, hopefully you’ve enjoyed the opportunity to observe some of the dozens of bird species visible throughout campus. If you have been around this summer the warblings of bluebirds and numerous nests bustling with newfound life have become part of the background of your campus environment. Although you may not have noticed them as much as the shorter weekend night lines at Wawa, these denizens of campus are indicators of the lively avian community reliant upon campus landscapes. Soon, though, these fervent residents will begin their fall migration to southern latitudes and in their stead a whole new bird community will replace them. Just as William & Mary has a different human community come August it will also have a new bird community. Some such as the Blackpoll Warbler will be traveling from as far away as Western Alaska. For species like these our campus is a critically important resting area as they wing their way as far south as Brazil. Unfortunately, for nearly all migrants their journey is never as romantic as the writings of Rachel Carson and others have described.

“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter…” –Rachel Carson

More and more the symbolic and actual beauty of migration is vanishing as the journey becomes a gauntlet of increasingly frightening challenges. Habitat destruction and climate change are rapidly rendering long-honed migration instincts outdated. There are, however, a few lethal pressures on birds that DO NOT require multinational legislation or burdensome economic policies. Bird window strikes are one of those easily fixable problems*. And with estimates of up to 1 billion birds killed per year in the US alone of the approximately 20 billion in all of the country, we can no longer afford to continue on this trajectory. Sometimes saving birds leaves us in difficult situations such as when leaving a productive wetland intact means a housing community cannot be built. In comparison, the issue of preventing birds from hitting windows is relatively simple. Within the past couple of years easily applicable films have been developed to reduce reflections from windows to a point where birds no longer see the appealing habitat “behind” the window and therefore no longer strike the window. These films may be applied to any window and the film is easy to install. The best part? Every time a window is outfitted with this film, birds’ lives are saved. The effect is that straightforward, that instantaneous and that simple.

The top window has been treated while the bottom has not. Notice the difference in the reflections.

The top window has been treated while the bottom has not. Notice the difference in the reflections.

This spring a Green Fee awarded to Professor Dan Cristol and students Ohad Paris (Graduate program ’17) and Megan Mass (Undergraduate ’18) funded the application of treatments to windows in the Swem courtyard, on the southwestern side of the library building. For the past three years students have been monitoring birds killed at windows on campus and this was the most lethal area killing an estimated 25-30 birds per year. Taken over the life of the now 50-year-old building, that combines for a saddening number of needlessly taken lives. As you walk to Swem from the direction of Ukrop Way take a look at the windows surrounding the courtyard, in all likelihood you won’t notice any difference, at least right away, and that is the beauty of the project. The birds notice it, we don’t and everyone goes on with their lives.

What you can do

Join me and movements across the country in doing what you can to prevent window strikes. A list of links with more information are at the bottom of this post. If YOU would like to help on campus email the Bird Club of William and Mary. Right now we are gathering data to figure out where the next windows we should treat are.

On a side note, if you do look carefully you will notice that some of the windows are not as reflective. Right now two windows have been treated, but keep an eye out for the installation of the last five as migration, and bird collision frequency, increase come the end of August.

*An in-depth look

Birds and windows have obviously not evolved in tandem. The time required for birds to adapt to challenges posed by windows is, unfortunately, orders of magnitudes longer than the 150 years or so that glass windows have been in widespread use. When birds fly around they are typically looking for one of three things: water, food or shelter from predators and the weather. Often this means they are looking for trees and bushes. There are three major problems when this desirable habitat comes in close contact with structures that have windows. The first issue is that birds cannot readily discern the difference between a reflection of a tree and the sight of a real tree. The second problem is that birds don’t see like humans do; their eyes are positioned on the side of their heads as opposed to the forward facing eyes of humans. This means they are less likely to be able to detect an obstruction directly in front of them. Finally, more than 90% of the birds that hit windows and succumb to the associated severe brain trauma are migrants not familiar with the local windows. In contrast, local birds very rarely fall victim to windows. This means that fall and spring, when millions of birds migrate, are far and away the most dangerous and lethal times of year on the William and Mary campus and around the world.

Below are some pictures and commentary of a few of the species that have been found under windows around campus. 

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Black-throated Blue Warblers breed throughout the northeast and are commonly found migrants in May and September campus

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In the late winter large flocks of more than 200 Cedar Waxwings eat every single berry on campus

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Common Yellowthroats are another migrant seen in brushy areas on campus. They make their home across North America along waterways and in wetlands

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Rusty Blackbirds are a globally threatened species that makes its winter home on campus where it subsides on the crushed acorns in front of Swem and on Ukrop Dr.

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Song Sparrows nest in the bushes across campus and are often the first to sing in the spring

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Gray Catbirds make their home in berry thickets where you may have caught glimpses of them making their namesake mewing call while picking berries

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Northern Parulas are one of the 28 or so species of warblers that pass through campus in the spring and fall every year on migration

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The closest Painted Buntings can reliably be found to campus is in South Carolina, but they sometimes stray to Virginia

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The classy Black-and-White Warbler is one of the first warblers to arrive in the spring and last to leave in the fall. One even spent the winter in Colonial Williamsburg in 2014!

Links 

  • http://www.collidescape.org/
  • https://abcbirds.org/program/glass-collisions/
  • The documentary The Messenger, available on Netflix

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About:

Welcome to Hark Upon the Green! This blog is a shared space for members of the sustainability community at William & Mary to write about sustainability topics on and beyond. If you would like to contribute to the blog, contact Madeleine Boel, Committee on Sustainability Web Assistant, at mgboel@email.wm.edu.
Make sure to visit Sustainability at W&M for all of W&M's progress on sustainability efforts. Catch up with William & Mary Sustainability on Twitter at WM_GreenisGold
To learn what William & Mary's Environmental Law Society is up to, visit their blog at http://envirols.blogs.wm.edu/.

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